A Louisiana task force formed to review student transportation and passenger safety submitted its final report last month in response to legislative attempts to pass a new school bus seat belts law.
The Task Force on Student Transportation and School Bus Passenger Safety was called together by Louisiana officials in response to a bill introduced in 2016 that called for all new school buses to be equipped with "occupant restraints,” but offered no funding from the state.
SB 204 failed to pass committee, but it would have required safety restraints—though, not seat belts, specifically—on new school buses. It was authored by state Sen. Troy Carter from New Orleans. However, the state senate passed a resolution to establish thee task force to study school bus seat belts and make a recommendation on the path forward.
The task force’s final report concluded among its recommendations that seat belts should not be mandated for school buses in Louisiana. The report also recommended that if the state Legislature does pass a law that requires occupant restraints, funding for installation and training needs to be appropriated.
Task force Chairman George Horne said he hopes this is just the beginning of a concerted effort to address all weak links in the chain of student safety and “to call upon agencies, organizations and individuals to unite in our efforts to protect our most precious cargo.”
Horne was asked to chair the task force after the position was left unfilled, saying that he got the “lucky bean.”
“I am a LA DOE-certified school bus driver instructor and a LA DOE-certified Master Instructor,” Horne said. “My experience as an educator spans more than 56 years, and my work in student transportation exceeds 40 years.”
Employed by the Jefferson Parish Public School System for 32 years in a range of positions from teacher to transportation director superintendent, he retired in 1992 to serve as a private consultant specializing in student transportation for Horne Enterprises.
“The Task Force determined that there seems to be a great need for educating parents, students, teachers, school bus drivers, motorists, law enforcement agencies, etc., on Louisiana statutes, school bus safety and related topics,” he said.
As for SB 204’s lack of necessary funding, according to Horne, Louisiana currently faces a more than $300-million deficit for the remainder of FY 2016-17.
He said that school districts statewide have already experienced budget cuts—there are possibly more on the horizon—and “any unfunded mandates place additional hardships of local school districts.”
“The task force agrees that, ideally, all measures that enhance student safety—whether applicable to passengers in school buses or other motor vehicles or to pedestrians who are traveling to or from school or school bus stops—should be pursued; however, fiscal restraints must be taken into consideration, as well,” Horne added.
The final report was not universally praised by school bus industry. Charlie Vits, market development manager for IMMI's Line of SafeGuard school bus seat belts and seating, said the study “contradicts current national recognition for the value of lap shoulder belts on school buses.”
“Unfortunately, the makeup of this Louisiana study committee did not include those with any real-world working knowledge and experience specifically with lap-shoulder belts on school buses,” said Vits, who was recently appointed to three-year term as an at-large representative on the National Child Passenger Safety Board.
He added that there was no input from researchers at the NTSB, who found the need for enhanced occupant protection on school buses based on studies of crashes of buses with belts and without belts, or involvement from districts that have successfully implemented lap-shoulder belts.
“We can look to others such as North Carolina and their lap-shoulder belt implementation study for real information on this matter of lap-shoulder belts in school buses,” he said.
As for the recommendations from the Louisiana task force, Vits said, “Ultimately, it came down to how much money should be spent to provide this benefit to our traveling children.”
The findings received the support of the National School Transportation Association, releasing a statement that thanks other task force members and the State of Louisiana for its efforts.
NSTA Executive Director Ronna Weber, who was appointed to the task force, was “grateful to serve alongside those who also invested their time for the benefit of school transportation in Louisiana and nationwide.”
“We commend the task force for completing its task and know others will learn from these efforts," she added.
You can read the full report by clicking here.